Tuesday, January 08, 2008
When museum professionals talk about extending the museum experience, they’re usually talking about post-visit experiences. Personalized websites with photos from the visit. Online activities that continue experiments begun in the galleries. Emails home with links to content related to exhibits of interest. The expectation is that visit extension is a way to motivate repeat visits, that “taking the museum home with you” will keep the institution in mind for the future.
But what about pre-visits? In many ways, the ability to successfully set a powerful and useful expectation for museum experiences is MORE valuable than the ability to extend said experience. When you set an expectation, you frame an experience. Once visitors have already banged on the exhibits and watched the giant nostril show, the experience belongs totally to them. The chances of reaching and holding onto them back at home are small. They’ve formed their impressions of the on-site experience, and their chance of returning, becoming members, etc. is heavily based on those impressions. You can send them all the pleasant follow-up emails you like, but such notes are unlikely to be the motivating factor that brings them back through your doors.
Pre-visits, however, are a wealth of opportunity. Where post-visits might be thought of as the “long tail” of museum involvement, connecting a small percentage of individuals with a deeper experience, pre-visits hit a huge volume of people—visitors and non-visitors--right in the face. Pre-visits are about the first look. For some, that may be a billboard or ad. For a few lucky students, it may be an in-class program or curriculum tie-in. But for most contemporary museum-goers, the pre-visit happens on the web.
What’s the most used portion of your museum website? For the vast majority of museums, there’s one homepage button that reigns supreme: Plan a Visit. More people visit the museum website to plan their visit than to do anything else. This is not a negative commentary on other portions of the museum website—it’s a reflection of the stage at which visitors seek information from the institution. And unfortunately, the information we give to these pre-visitors is mostly stale. Most museums use their websites to advertise their content and proferred experiences, and yet these advertisements are often washed out and dull. They rarely convey the energy and intrigue of the museum itself—but if you don’t make it past the pre-visit, you’ll never learn what you’re missing.
Why don’t more sites focus creative content on the Plan a Visit section of the site? One argument is that people want their nuts and bolts, no frills attached. But I think the main reason that this mismatch happens is because it’s easier to develop creative content for post-visits than pre-visits. Post-visit material continues the stories started by exhibitions and programs, whereas pre-visit content has to sneak in before the opening label text, a lead-in to the lead-in. Also, post-visit content is directed towards people who have already passed through the filter of experiencing the museum—they have already demonstrated their interest in the institution. Pre-visit audiences, however, include both visitors and non-visitors. The post-visitors are the cream of the appreciative crop. Pre-visitors include people who will never walk through our doors.
But these non-visitors are just as, if not more, important than the visitors who stick around for the final closing call. For a museum seeking to expand its visitor base (and what museum isn’t?), more creative energy should be focused on non-visitors. Sure, non-visitors include many people who just don’t have interest in your core message. But it also includes folks who aren’t aware of it, for whom a little creative effort at the front end would create a compelling reason to attend. In political terms, the pre-visit is like campaigning. You make some promises, energize the base, and hopefully tip some undecided visitors your way. If your campaign is wooden, it doesn’t matter how competent or exciting you are—people won’t see it.
What can we add to our pre-visit pitch to improve museum experiences and bring in new visitors? Here are a couple suggestions for the campaign:
Intersperse functional with creative content. Yes, it’s important for Plan a Visit web pages to clearly steer you to the hours and location of the museum. But every visitor who experiences your website, even if only to find out where the café is, should get a flavor for the spirit of your institution. The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, for example, has a novel navigation device for their homepage: a chicken. When you move your mouse, the chicken follows you to the links of interest. Like many websites, the top of each page is a navigation bar to different areas of the site. Instead of reaching the main page by clicking the word “home,” you do so by clicking “The Chicken.” This simple device reinforces the spirit of fun and zaniness throughout the site—whether you are checking hours or hunting down a phone number.
Target your demographics. The other unusual thing about the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s website is its organization. From the chicken page, you can go to an area for kids, another for parents, a third for teachers, and a fourth for “museum geeks”. Each of these options leads you to a distinctive museum map meant to highlight areas of specific interest to that constituency. For parents, it’s about planning different kinds of visits, programs, and parties. For teachers, it’s about linking into curricula. For kids, it’s about the excitement of the exhibits. Pittsburgh speaks the native language of each of its constituencies instead of presenting a single image. Non-visitors are more likely to imagine themselves visiting an institution if they see their specific interests targeted in the basic content.
Frame the web experience the way you frame the introduction to an exhibition. When a visitor walks into one of your exhibitions, how do you set expectations about the forthcoming experience? Do you employ large entry labels or videos giving overview? Do you pull people in with a particularly compelling interaction? Do you usher them into an immersive environment? Websites may be flat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t “enter” them the way you enter museums. I once saw a fabulous homepage for a Civil Rights conference (and can't now recall the link, sadly), reminiscent of the classic Smithsonian American History exhibition on the Civil Rights movement. You had to enter the website by defining yourself either as a "white" or a "black". The experience is simulated, but the emotional response is still powerful.
Give people a starting point to draw them to the museum. With post-visit experiences, educators are always trying to design hooks into the museum visit to encourage people to return to the museum content, website, or physical site itself later. But this requires the museum visit as prerequisite. Instead of designing museum experiments that can only be completed at home, why not design web-based experiments that can only be completed at the museum? A devilishly challenging puzzle or a tantalizing question may pull some non-visitors in your doors.
Yes, all of these suggestions require resources, staff time, and creative effort. But the potential benefits are huge in terms of bringing undecided or reluctant visitors to the museum. Once they’re in, you can feed them all the open-ended, post-visit-friendly experiences you want. But first, give them a stump speech with some pizzazz to get them in the door.